UN Security Council visits Colombia as peace worries mount

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Ivan Duque, Gustavo Meza, Jonathan Guy

Peruvian Ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, the president of UN Security Council, from left, Colombia’s President Ivan Duque, and British Ambassador Jonathan Guy, arrive to deliver a joint statement to reporters in Bogota, Colombia, Friday, July 12, 2019. The U.N. council is in Colombia for a firsthand look at implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the country’s main rebel group. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Maria del Pilar Hurtado’s son screamed in anguish at the sight of his mother’s dead body on a dirt road in the poor community in northern Colombia the family called home.

He kicked his feet on the ground and grasped his face in his hands. Passersby stopped and watched the boy’s agonizing grief but did little to console him.

The wrenching scene was caught on a cellphone camera and quickly made headlines around Colombia in June. For many, the social leader’s violent death was another painstaking reminder that in numerous parts of the South American nation peace remains elusive.

Now the United Nations Security Council is getting a firsthand look at the challenges of peace nearly three years into Colombia’s historic accord with leftist rebels as they visit Friday with the nation’s president, politicians and former rebels at a time of mounting concern.

The council ambassadors kicked off their trip by expressing their steadfast support for the accord ending Latin America’s longest-running conflict, even as observers warn that implementation needs to move more quickly to avoid more anguishing scenes of death.

Despite the concerns, Peruvian Ambassador Gustavo Meza Cuadra maintained that the accord, “Continues to be an example not just for Latin America but the entire world.”

President Ivan Duque, elected last year on a platform promising to change key aspects of the accord, said his administration stands committed to helping ex-combatants who genuinely want to leave a life of violence behind but won’t tolerate those involved in new crimes.

“We should think big and look to the future,” he said following a breakfast with the Security Council. “And construct a peace where the law is the chief guarantor.”

Colombia’s government signed the accord with members of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016 after four years of negotiations in Cuba. Since then, most of the 13,000 ex-combatants have begun the transition to civilian life. Thousands of weapons used in more than five decades of conflict have been melted down and made into a monument in Bogota. The former rebels have formed a political party and now have congress leaders and senators.

Despite those important advances, analysts are concerned that Colombia’s government hasn’t done enough to establish a presence in vast remote stretches once controlled by rebels and now in the hands of competing illegal armed groups involved in the drug trade.

Hurtado’s killing marked one more in an alarming string of deaths of social leaders and ex-combatants. According to the non-profit Somos Defensores, 155 activists were killed in 2018, up from 106 such deaths the year before. Colombia’s ombudsman’s office says 462 social leaders have been killed between January 2016 and the beginning of this year.

“The conflict with the FARC — or the majority of the FARC — ended,” said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, referring to the acronym used by former rebels. “But post-war with the FARC is not post-conflict for Colombia.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a recent report that he regrets the “polarization and division” in Colombia over elements of the peace deal. He called on the government to ensure that any changes to the accord respect commitments made to rebels who laid down arms.

The U.N. chief also expressed “deep concern” that the U.N. mission in Colombia has verified 123 killings of former combatants since the peace deal’s signing.

“It’s going too slow,” Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said of the implementation. “If the government had taken advantage and gotten more of a presence in these areas you would not be seeing the same levels of violence.”

The peace accord remains divisive in Colombia, where many still balk at the sight of former rebels serving as legislators in congress. The conflict between leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and the state left at least 250,000 people dead, 60,000 disappeared and millions displaced.

Many have doubted Duque’s commitment to peace after his election on a platform that promised to change the accord but not “tear it to shreds.” Thus far, he’s been unable to push forward his proposals. After meeting with the Security Council Friday, he noted that during the first year of his presidency, the number of economic development projects led by ex-rebels like initiatives to grow coffee and pineapples has multiplied, from two to 25.

In an April report, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which is charged with monitoring the accord’s implementation, noted that 31 percent of the accord’s pledges have not yet begun the first steps toward execution.

Nonetheless, the institute said Colombia’s pace is “comparable to other successful peace processes.”

Hurtado, a mother of four, had already fled one home after receiving death threats, only to settle in a new area and find herself targeted again, community groups said.

As an activist, she had spoken up for victims and denounced crimes like forced disappearances. More recently, she was helping poor residents who had settled on lands that did not belong to them, according to local media. She reportedly made a living by recycling garbage.

Social leaders in Colombia are hoping the Security Council’s visit will help accelerate implementation and shine a light on deaths like Hurtado’s.

“The whole promise of the peace agreement was to do something that had never been accomplished in Colombian history, which was to overcome this sense that there were two Colombias,” Arnson said. “One of the big unanswered questions of the peace process is why the government was so slow and either unwilling or incapable of occupying these spaces vacated by the FARC.”

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